The Abilene Police Department has found a special use for its equestrian officers — engaging with the community.
Nine-year APD veteran and patrol officer Jessica Watkins said the department’s mounted unit was on the brink of dissolution when she joined. As a lifelong equine enthusiast, Watkins thought that horse-riding officers could bring unexpected value to the community.
In addition to community engagement, such as riding during local parades, Watkins believes horses can be useful for patrolling downtown or locating missing persons.
When she pitched the idea to Chief Marcus Dudley, he supported it “wholeheartedly.”
Dudley told Abilene Reporter News that the city was “fortunate to have such talented officers and the resources they provide to be able to have brought back our Mounted Patrol Unit.”
The APD’s mounted unit consists of several officers, including Watkins, Larry Hill, Kenneth Welch and Sean Yargus. Since October, the mounted officers have appeared at several community events, including the recent downtown Christmas parade and a Blue Santa event at a local Walmart.
The horses, an Appaloosa called Gambit, a quarter horse named CB, a Shire named Wyatt (after Wyatt Earp) and Argo, a Percheron, are much loved by the city.
Dudley added that the unit was a representation of local traditions.
“The unit is the epitome of our West Texas culture and a connection with our community,” he said.
The chief explained that the mounted unit will assist with patrol duties in addition to being an “excellent resource for community engagement.”
Before the unit’s debut, both horses and riders had to undergo sufficient training.
“We went to the mounted patrol training school that was put on by the Arlington Mounted Patrol Unit in Cleburne,” Watkins said.
Both dogs and horses have to be certified for police use, but the training is very different.
“They’ve been through the gamut of stuff and exposed to things so that we know how they will respond and react,” she said of the horses.
In addition to horse behavioral and desensitization training, the riders must be able to hone their skills to maneuver in tight situations.
The training included exposing the horses to lights and sounds, as well as riding through crowded obstacle courses to simulate crowd control and split masses of people to pave the way for vehicles.
The riders even practiced firing tasers or firearms from atop the horses to boost their confidence in all sorts of scenarios.
Watkins has had a lifelong relationship with horses. She first rode a horse when she was 4, and when she was 10, she volunteered at a stable and began riding almost every day.
“And then I went off to college and [participated in] college rodeos,” she said.
Upon joining law enforcement, Watkins decided to combine her love of horses with her passion for community service. She is excited to see the fruits of the mounted patrol unit’s labor.
“We will eventually be doing some patrolling downtown, and then the parks and that kind of stuff — looking out for people doing things they shouldn’t be doing, contacting people that might be intoxicated, or something of that nature,” she said of the unit’s mission.
So far, the horses have had a positive reception in the community.
“People want to come up and pet them, and we love that,” Watkins said. “We want to interact with folks, and it’s a really good way to be able to do that, especially for people that don’t necessarily like police officers.”